Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Night Owl



By Mark W. Danielson

By nature, I'm not a night owl, but my profession has made me one. Night flying opens whole new dimensions. “To infinity and beyond,” as Buzz Lightyear would say. On moonless nights over oceans and barren land, the Milky Way is bright enough to mask our planets and constellations. Satellites can be seen tracking across the sky. Aurora Borealis dance while reaching for Heaven. Mushroom clouds light up from within. Large storms resemble nebulas. Australian wildfires and Japanese fishing fleets look like cities. Fireworks are sparks from a grinder’s wheel. My wingtip strobes become lightning.

The rising moon, distorted by the atmosphere, appears flaming orange. Flying east, shooting skyward at an alarming rate, it turns bright white. Full moons illuminate snow-capped mountains, cloud formations, airplane contrails, and bodies of water. Flying west, it sets slowly while the morning sky races to catch up.

Night flying has made me a vampire, my need to sleep before sunrise overwhelming. On good days, hotel maids won’t wake me until I’ve slept four hours, the “Please Do Not Disturb” sign on my door universally translating to “Please Vacuum Here Twice”. Working the back side of the clock has its challenges, but walking the streets of Singapore, Shanghai, Sydney, Paris, Dubai, Cologne, and so many others when I awake makes up for it. Mine is an odd, gypsy lifestyle, living in hotels five months out of each year, but it’s a wonderful life. Things I witness inspire me to write and my layovers provide the time. Night flying is serene compared to day flying. The radios are quieter and the pace is slower. Rather than fly my flight plan, I can often cut corners because there is less traffic. There is no squinting into that big yellow ball. Since I carry no passengers on my cargo MD-11, it’s just me and my co-pilot slicing the air at thirty-five thousand feet, drinking Diet Coke, and swapping stories. Never a complaint from the back.

Authors come from all walks of life and readers know little about them. That’s why I took this moment to share mine. My windscreen is my gateway to the world, my airplane, a pod circling Spaceship Earth. The next time you take a “red-eye”, you might want to check out the night sky before shutting your eyes. Every flight is different. You never know what you’ll see.

9 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

Wonderful Mark. I envy you those sights you describe so sumptuously. Not sure about lightning crackling off the wing tips but it all sounds magical.

Jean Henry Mead said...

It must be magical sitting in the cockpit on an all-night flight. I recall a midnight flight from Seattle to Fairbanks that I'll never forget...

Mark W. Danielson said...

Bill, the greatest night flights are the pond crossings to or from Europe. I've seen the Aurora extend for hundreds of miles. They sweep our wings so we can't see them bouncing in the turbulence, but if it's dark enough, the stobes flashing in my periferal vision tell me my wings are still there:)

Jean, every flight is magical to me, day or night, but the night sky, seeing all the splendor above me, is truly amazing.

Carola said...

I always choose a window seat. Just ordinary cloudscapes are wonderful. I managed to use some of the landscapes I've seen from above when Daisy and Alec flew across the US in a biplane in The Case of the Murdered Muckraker. Have you ever flown a biplane, Mark? My cousin has a home-built plane and invited me up but I have to confess I chickened out. The smallest plane I've flown in was about 8-12 seats, mostly over ocean.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Carola, you owe it to yourself to go fly in that bi-plane. I built one many years ago and did plenty of airshows in it. Had to sell it to buy a house, but it was a lot of fun seeing the horizon rotate around those two wings. (Mine was a 300 hp Steen Skybolt, N51MD)

Carola said...

I did a lot of research--short of going up in one--before writing about it. Very happy when a reader emailed me to say her husband was a small plane fanatic, read the book, and said I'd got it right :-)

Mark W. Danielson said...

It doesn't get any better than that, Carola. If you ever need a look at an aviation scene, let me know.

Earl Staggs said...

Sounds adventurous and romantic, Mark, and a little scary, too. But that only adds to the adventure. My most exciting flight involved circling D/FW at night in a thunderstorm. The lightning show from within the clouds was incredible.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Earl, I used to work at Simuflite at DFW Airport and had a great view of the runways. When the weather got real ugly, pilots would take off until one finally said, "No, I'll wait." Then everone else would wait. When the danger had passed and someone said, "Okay, I'm ready," everyone would take off again. There's a lot of pressure to take off on time, but I'll never take off into a thunderstorm. As we've seen with the tsunami, nature will win every time.